REVIVING GOLDEN OLDIES
Mkhize adds his flavour to classics
PIANIST, songwriter and arranger Themba Mkhize is unselfish with his artistic talent.
The former member of Bayete and Sakhile popular Afro-fusion
– bands of the 1980s has over the
– years demonstrated a good habit of dusting off some great South African classics.
Mkhize has given his personal flavour without diluting the
– original taste to tunes that were
– penned and/or performed by artists such as the father of maskandi music John Phuzu
“shukela Bhengu, Princess Con
” stance Magogo, Caiphus Semenya, Phillip Tabane, Hugh Masekela, the Soul Brothers and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
It therefore makes sense that Smal Ndaba and Phyllis Klotz made him the musical director for their stage play Kwela Bafana+, which is on until December 10 at Joburg s Victory Theatre.
’ The production is set in the 1950s, meaning its storyline attempts to bring to the attention of the present-day audience the vibe, the people and the popular songs of the time, such as Ntyilo Ntyilo and Meadowlands , from what is generally regarded as the Sophiatown era.
We chatted with Mkhize on a Sunday afternoon at his home studio in Malvern, Jo burg, about
’ the project.
Flowing smoothly in the background are a number of familiar songs Pata Pata, Life is Going On,
– Shosholoza, Mbube and Homeless
– a project he calls a South African Song Book, which he has recently completed with a German big band called SWR.
There s already lots of avail“’ able and untapped [domestic music] material, so I find it fascinating that we write song after song when we actually don t have
’ to. We can breathe our own breath into some of our old classics; give them a bit of our feel. In that way our best songs live forever, it s part
’ of preserving our heritage,” he says. People in the first world
“countries have mastered the art of preserving their cultural heritage in many ways. You can find recent recordings of classical music from as far back as 1684. They “study their music while looking at it from all angles as a specimen. We can learn from them. Our old music can also still be available in many ways, whether its in hip hop, mbaqanga, jazz or kwaito, as long as preservation is the aim.”
Of all the Mzansi classics, Mkhize appears to have an emotional attachment to Mackay Davashe s composition Lakutshon
’ Ilanga. Over the years he has recorded or presented a number of different renditions of the tune
– including for the film Drum and on his album Hands On. It is also part of his current project.
It is one of the best melodies “ever, Mkhize opines. The thing is
” “with beautiful melodies they can be sung, played on the saxophone, piano What also draws me to
… Lakutshon Ilanga is the hidden or double message it carriers. At face value it s a love song but it also
’ communicates many messages. People were getting lost for one reason or another at the time it was written.”
Mkhize, who often travels to perform in countries like Japan and Germany, says the world out there loves South African music and stories but knows little about our heritage. This says to me that someone “is not doing their job, selling it to the world out there. I don t know
’ who that someone is, it could be recording companies, the government or maybe the musicians themselves.”
One of the faults that can be found with many South African musicians is the absence, in their system, of a culture of comple- menting and saluting each other, particularly through performance, as contemporaries or acknowledging those that came before. Instead many local artists find it more desirable, acceptable or even cool to mostly affirm songwriters and or copy performers from abroad.
The root of the problem, Mkhize reckons, can be traced back to when multinational recording companies first set up shop in this country. Their goal was not to record “natives and their music but to sell foreign culture. To them it was more like when we get there we
‘ are going to teach them about us and they should forget about themselves ’. Recording local artists was an afterthought, in my thinking, for tax purposes. The music of Sophiatown borrows a lot from American music of the 50s and what most of the kids hear today is music from elsewhere.” Mkhize s singing has its foun
’ dation back at school when he sang in a choir in the township of umlazi in Durban. As one of the naughty boys “with my friend Madoda Zondi, we tried to skip choir practices because we thought it was not cool. But a teacher called Hlatshwayo was in charge of the choir he happened
– to know I played the piano and he made sure I was part of the choir. I must say I learnt a lot about blending and working as a unit of seven or 15 people in a choir.”
The singing continued when Mkhize s talent contributed to the
’ work of, among others, Caiphus Semenya and Hugh Masekela.
TRUE HOMAGE: Themba Mkhize is the musical director of Kwela Bafana+